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Tracking changes in Zim politics

By Brian Raftopoulos

BETWEEN the period 1997-2000 and the present there has been a seismic shift in Zimbabwean politics.

The earlie

r period was marked by an emergent culture of opposition and a growing feeling of possibility of an alternative political dispensation. The resources of hope in the nation were at a high point as political issues were openly and keenly debated and citizens were actively involved in the country’s political processes.

The contrast with the present could hardly be more stark as the traumatic effects of a revived authoritarian nationalist project have been severely felt by a broad range of Zimbabweans.

A report released this week attempts to track the changes in the political attitudes of Zimbabweans during this period. The report, entitled The Power of Propaganda: Public Opinion in Zimbabwe, 2004, was produced as part of the Afro Barometer series of papers on political opinions in Africa. The central outcome of the survey reveals that while Zimbabweans are deeply concerned about eroding standards of living, they are paradoxically “increasingly resigned to the dominance of the incumbent government”.

The report attempts to explain this paradox largely through the government’s squeeze on the media, which in recent years has denied citizens access to most sources of information except official propaganda.

On the economy the report observes that:

* more than half of the population believe that the present generation are materially worse off than their parents;

* four in 10 Zimbabweans report that they went without food “many times” in the previous year;

* more than other African countries, Zimbabweans hold the government accountable for individual welfare; and

* the interviewees rarely mention land reform as a priority national problem, and three quarters believe that land acquisition should only be done through legal means and with compensation to owners.

The report also reveals that interviewees believe that the most important economic problems facing the country are the overall management of the economy, employment and food security and that only 43% believed that the government is doing a good job managing the economy.

One conclusion drawn from these “lowly assessments” of the economy is that “the present government would have difficulty being re-elected in a free and fair election that focused squarely on its performance managing the economy”.

Moving on to the political terrain the report points out a number of interesting trends: Zimbabweans are losing faith in democracy; party politics has become less attractive to Zimbabweans with a half of all those interviewed preferring to remain outside of either of the major political parties due to the belief that “party competition leads to social conflict”; whereas MDC supporters are more likely to support violence in support of a just cause, Zanu PF are more likely to have actually engaged in violent political acts; approval ratings for President Mugabe have increased from 20% in 1999 to 46% this year. Although trust for the ruling party remains below 50% this contrasts with the small proportions who are willing to admit trusting opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai and opposition parties generally.

There are a number of conclusions that can be drawn from these findings. Firstly there is no automatic connection between economic crisis and an increase in support for the opposition. This is because, in an environment of authoritarian politics, the causes of crisis can be “explained” in ways which seek to legitimise the position of the ruling party. In other words the active construction of politics through the media has played a major role, as the report notes, in legitimising the ruling party.

The monopolising of the electronic media and the repression of alternative daily voices such as the Daily News has clearly had an effect in preventing alternative views on the economic and political crisis from informing daily debate. Moreover, this monopolisation of the media needs to be viewed in conjunction with the other ways in which the state has been used to repress alternative political formations. However, this assessment needs to keep in mind that Zanu PF has combined these coercive measures with a skilful articulation of historical grievances such that it has presented its vision as a daily part of people’s lives and in some sense speaking “for the people”. Ideologies, in order to be effective, do not have to be totally consistent or homogeneous. In a repressive environment they can be articulated to “make sense” in the absence of alternative explanations and people can begin to internalise such positions for various reasons of personal and social survival.

Secondly, the crisis has not only produced large numbers of casualties but also beneficiaries. The report is correct to make this point and the beneficiaries clearly include the new elite on the land which include members from the political elite, army, the civil service and the private sector.

The emergence and consolidation of this elite is a very contradictory process as the intra-party struggles over multiple farms indicates and the battles within this group are likely to be vicious given its organic link to the succession question.

Nevertheless there have been clear beneficiaries. Additionally, notwithstanding the chaos of the land reform process, the latter will also have produced beneficiaries amongst the small producers, however fragile their current status. However, the long-term success of this project depends on its sustainability which at present is at best precarious. This fragility of the economic project will in turn have political effects. As the report points out, “given that the government’s supply of patronage is drying up and that the government is spurning international offers of food relief in 2004, the proportion of winners may dwindle fast”.

In terms of the political findings of the report, there are a number of interesting conclusions that can be drawn. Once again the state-controlled media has been effectively deployed to portray the president as an effective, reliable leader with his legitimacy drawn from the liberation struggle. Moreover, the figure of the president has been drawn as being above the contradictions and problems of party politics and as leading a state which people still view as a development agency and accountable for their individual welfare.

This perception is a long way from the “failed state” thesis that is sometimes peddled as an analysis of the Zimbabwean state. The latter has exemplified the enormous weight that Third World states can deploy for both destructive and constructive purposes. In the absence of an alternative daily vehicle for an analysis of the president’s performance, this position has taken on a strong presence in the politics of the country. Additionally, it should be said that the figure of the president has a contradictory presence in the lives of Zimbabweans, representing both liberation hero and autocratic president and evincing sentiments of both empathy and criticism. This can often result in a good deal of ambiguity over his status except in regions of the country where this ambiguity is much less apparent and the hostility more historically-based.

Alternatively, the control of the media has resulted in a daily demonisation of the opposition and its leader. In the absence of any meaningful access to the electronic media and denied the platform of a daily opposition paper, the figure of Tsvangirai has not surprisingly diminished in the public sphere.

The report is therefore correct in pointing out the damage that media control and state repression has inflicted on the opposition. Given this major limitation the opposition has been denied a vehicle to be able to articulate its national vision and to conduct a regular contest over ideas in the public arena. The lack of public trust towards the opposition revealed in the report is clearly related to such repressive conditions.

However, this does not explain the whole picture. The opposition have in an important sense not given enough attention to the struggle over ideas and people’s everyday perception of the crisis in Zimbabwe. There has been an implicit reliance on the assumption that a deepening of the economic crisis would on its own recruit opposition support.

It may be that such an assumption has arisen out of a sense of frustration with the closure of political space that has characterised the present context and the enormity of the organisational problems that have had to be confronted because of state repression.

It is also true that the opposition, both the MDC and the civic movement, has not given sufficient attention to constructing an alternative vision of both the past and the future. People develop their views of politics, not only out of the immediacy of economic problems, but from inherited and available conceptions of a political situation. These have to be continually contested in order to build political constituencies. Having been won over in one set of conditions, there is no guarantee that such support will remain indefinitely. Under the current authoritarian climate, this difficult terrain of struggle is an extremely important arena.

To conclude, the report has good and bad news for both the ruling party and the opposition. For Zanu PF it is clear that despite the deteriorating economic situation, their control of the dissemination of ideas through the media, when combined with other repressive measures and the creation of select economic constituencies, has contributed to the short-term strengthening of the position of the presidency.

The bad news is that negative views of the economy are pervasive in the society and the ruling party’s articulation of the land question has not been received in the unproblematic, positive ways it was intended. Thus the long-term sustainability of this project remains contested and fragile.

For the opposition the bad news is that the lack of access to the media has had a negative effect on the public’s confidence in their leadership and capacity. It is clear that in the short-term, whatever the problems in the economy, this does not translate into an automatic increase in support for the opposition. The effective use of the media to construct conceptions of the past and “explanations” of the present has had a negative effect on opposition politics.

Thus the president must be thinking that the current Minister of Information has earned his keep, however much of a liability he might become in a post-election dispensation in 2005, requiring a more ameliorative, less combative political strategy.

Regarding the general terrain on which the democratic struggle is being contested in Zimbabwe, the report has some positive conclusions. Firstly, despite their fear of political repression people are still “willing to take the risk of speaking the truth to power”.

Secondly, some 60% of those interviewed declared themselves “independent, undecided or apolitical”. This represents a decisive majority that would be available for electoral contestation in an atmosphere of greater political tolerance and free from the kind of electoral fraud and violence that has been one of the major political legacies of independent Zimbabwe. This is surely an important battle that remains to be won.

* Brian Raftopoulos is associate professor, Institute of Development Studies (IDS), University of Zimbabwe.

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